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SOUNDING THE TIMBER
When Steele left the hall, pushing Snell before him, making a lane through the crowd, it was not any longer possible to watch everybody.
Yet now he seemed to ignore the men behind him. Any friend of Snell's among the vicious element might have pulled a gun. I wondered if Steele knew how I watched those men at his back--how fatal it would have been for any of them to make a significant move.
No--I decided that Steele trusted to the effect his boldness had created. It was this power to cow ordinary men that explained so many of his feats; just the same it was his keenness to read desperate men, his nerve to confront them, that made him great.
The crowd followed Steele and his captive down the middle of the main street and watched him secure a team and buckboard and drive off on the road to Sanderson.
Only then did that crowd appear to realize what had happened. Then my long-looked-for opportunity arrived. In the expression of silent men I found something which I had sought; from the hurried departure of others homeward I gathered import; on the husky, whispering lips of yet others I read words I needed to hear.
The other part of that crowd--to my surprise, the smaller part--was the roaring, threatening, complaining one.
Thus I segregated Linrock that was lawless from Linrock that wanted law, but for some reason not yet clear the latter did not dare to voice their choice.
How could Steele and I win them openly to our cause? If that could be done long before the year was up Linrock would be free of violence and Captain Neal's Ranger Service saved to the State.
I went from place to place, corner to corner, bar to bar, watching, listening, recording; and not until long after sunset did I go out to the ranch.
The excitement had preceded me and speculation was rife. Hurrying through my supper, to get away from questions and to go on with my spying, I went out to the front of the house.
The evening was warm; the doors were open; and in the twilight the only lamps that had been lit were in Sampson's big sitting room at the far end of the house. Neither Sampson nor Wright had come home to supper.
I would have given much to hear their talk right then, and certainly intended to try to hear it when they did come home.
When the buckboard drove up and they alighted I was well hidden in the bushes, so well screened that I could get but a fleeting glimpse of Sampson as he went in.
For all I could see, he appeared to be a calm and quiet man, intense beneath the surface, with an air of dignity under insult. My chance to observe Wright was lost.
They went into the house without speaking, and closed the door.
At the other end of the porch, close under a window, was an offset between step and wall, and there in the shadow I hid. If Sampson or Wright visited the girls that evening I wanted to hear what was said about Steele.
It seemed to me that it might be a good clue for me--the circumstance whether or not Diane Sampson was told the truth. So I waited there in the darkness with patience born of many hours of like duty.
Presently the small lamp was lit--I could tell the difference in light when the big one was burning--and I heard the swish of skirts.
"Something's happened, surely, Sally," I heard Miss Sampson say anxiously. "Papa just met me in the hall and didn't speak. He seemed pale, worried."
"Cousin George looked like a thundercloud," said Sally. "For once, he didn't try to kiss me. Something's happened. Well, Diane, this has been a bad day for me, too."
Plainly I heard Sally's sigh, and the little pathetic sound brought me vividly out of my sordid business of suspicion and speculation. So she was sorry.
"Bad for you, too?" replied Diane in amused surprise. "Oh, I see--I forgot. You and Russ had it out."
"Out? We fought like the very old deuce. I'll never speak to him again."
"So your little--affair with Russ is all over?"
"Yes." Here she sighed again.
"Well, Sally, it began swiftly and it's just as well short," said Diane earnestly. "We know nothing at all of Russ."
"Diane, after to-day I respect him in--in spite of things--even though he seems no good. I--I cared a lot, too."
"My dear, your loves are like the summer flowers. I thought maybe your flirting with Russ might amount to something. Yet he seems so different now from what he was at first. It's only occasionally I get the impression I had of him after that night he saved me from violence. He's strange. Perhaps it all comes of his infatuation for you. He is in love with you. I'm afraid of what may come of it."
"Diane, he'll do something dreadful to George, mark my words," whispered Sally. "He swore he would if George fooled around me any more."
"Oh, dear. Sally, what can we do? These are wild men. George makes life miserable for me. And he teases you unmer..."
"I don't call it teasing. George wants to spoon," declared Sally emphatically. "He'd run after any woman."
"A fine compliment to me, Cousin Sally," laughed Diane.
"I don't agree," replied Sally stubbornly. "It's so. He's spoony. And when he's been drinking and tries to kiss me, I hate him."
"Sally, you look as if you'd rather like Russ to do something dreadful to George," said Diane with a laugh that this time was only half mirth.
"Half of me would and half of me would not," returned Sally. "But all of me would if I weren't afraid of Russ. I've got a feeling--I don't know what--something will happen between George and Russ some day."
There were quick steps on the hall floor, steps I thought I recognized.
"Hello, girls!" sounded out Wright's voice, minus its usual gaiety. Then ensued a pause that made me bring to mind a picture of Wright's glum face.
"George, what's the matter?" asked Diane presently. "I never saw papa as he is to-night, nor you so--so worried. Tell me, what has happened?"
"Well, Diane, we had a jar to-day," replied Wright, with a blunt, expressive laugh.
"Jar?" echoed both the girls curiously.
"Jar? We had to submit to a damnable outrage," added Wright passionately, as if the sound of his voice augmented his feeling. "Listen, girls. I'll tell you all about it."
He coughed, clearing his throat in a way that betrayed he had been drinking.
I sunk deeper in the shadow of my covert, and stiffening my muscles for a protracted spell of rigidity, prepared to listen with all acuteness and intensity.
Just one word from this Wright, inadvertently uttered in a moment of passion, might be the word Steele needed for his clue.
"It happened at the town hall," began Wright rapidly. "Your father and Judge Owens and I were there in consultation with three ranchers from out of town. First we were disturbed by gunshots from somewhere, but not close at hand. Then we heard the loud voices outside.
"A crowd was coming down street. It stopped before the hall. Men came running in, yelling. We thought there was a fire. Then that Ranger, Steele, stalked in, dragging a fellow by the name of Snell. We couldn't tell what was wanted because of the uproar. Finally your father restored order.
"Steele had arrested Snell for alleged assault on a restaurant keeper named Hoden. It developed that Hoden didn't accuse anybody, didn't know who attacked him. Snell, being obviously innocent, was discharged. Then this--this gun fighting Ranger pulled his guns on the court and halted the proceedings."
When Wright paused I plainly heard his intake of breath. Far indeed was he from calm.
"Steele held everybody in that hall in fear of death, and he began shouting his insults. Law was a farce in Linrock. The court was a farce. There was no law. Your father's office as mayor should be impeached. He made arrests only for petty offenses. He was afraid of the rustlers, highwaymen, murderers. He was afraid or--he just let them alone. He used his office to cheat ranchers and cattlemen in law-suits.
"All of this Steele yelled for everyone to hear. A damnable outrage! Your father, Diane, insulted in his own court by a rowdy Ranger! Not only insulted, but threatened with death--two big guns thrust almost in his face!"
"Oh! How horrible!" cried Diane, in mingled distress and anger.
"Steele's a Ranger. The Ranger Service wants to rule western Texas," went on Wright. "These Rangers are all a low set, many of them worse than the outlaws they hunt. Some of them were outlaws and gun fighters before they became Rangers.
"This Steele is one of the worst of the lot. He's keen, intelligent, smooth, and that makes him more to be feared. For he is to be feared. He wanted to kill. He meant to kill. If your father had made the least move Steele would have shot him. He's a cold-nerved devil--the born gunman. My God, any instant I expected to see your father fall dead at my feet!"
"Oh, George! The--the unspeakable ruffian!" cried Diane, passionately.
"You see, Diane, this fellow Steele has failed here in Linrock. He's been here weeks and done nothing. He must have got desperate. He's infamous and he loves his name. He seeks notoriety. He made that play with Snell just for a chance to rant against your father. He tried to inflame all Linrock against him. That about law-suits was the worst! Damn him! He'll make us enemies."
"What do you care for the insinuations of such a man?" said Diane Sampson, her voice now deep and rich with feeling. "After a moment's thought no one will be influenced by them. Do not worry, George, tell papa not to worry. Surely after all these years he can't be injured in reputation by--by an adventurer."
"Yes, he can be injured," replied George quickly. "The frontier is a queer place. There are many bitter men here, men who have failed at ranching. And your father has been wonderfully successful. Steele has dropped some poison, and it'll spread."
Then followed a silence, during which, evidently, the worried Wright bestrode the floor.
"Cousin George, what became of Steele and his prisoner?" suddenly asked Sally.
How like her it was, with her inquisitive bent of mind and shifting points of view, to ask a question the answering of which would be gall and wormwood to Wright!
It amused while it thrilled me. Sally might be a flirt, but she was no fool.
"What became of them? Ha! Steele bluffed the whole town--at least all of it who had heard the mayor's order to discharge Snell," growled Wright. "He took Snell--rode off for Del Rio to jail him."
"George!" exclaimed Diane. "Then, after all, this Ranger was able to arrest Snell, the innocent man father discharged, and take him to jail?"
"Exactly. That's the toughest part...." Wright ended abruptly, and then broke out fiercely: "But, by God, he'll never come back!"
Wright's slow pacing quickened and he strode from the parlor, leaving behind him a silence eloquent of the effect of his sinister prediction.
"Sally, what did he mean?" asked Diane in a low voice.
"Steele will be killed," replied Sally, just as low-voiced.
"Killed! That magnificent fellow! Ah, I forgot. Sally, my wits are sadly mixed. I ought to be glad if somebody kills my father's defamer. But, oh, I can't be!
"This bloody frontier makes me sick. Papa doesn't want me to stay for good. And no wonder. Shall I go back? I hate to show a white feather.
"Do you know, Sally, I was--a little taken with this Texas Ranger. Miserably, I confess. He seemed so like in spirit to the grand stature of him. How can so splendid a man be so bloody, base at heart? It's hideous. How little we know of men! I had my dream about Vaughn Steele. I confess because it shames me--because I hate myself!"
Next morning I awakened with a feeling that I was more like my old self. In the experience of activity of body and mind, with a prospect that this was merely the forerunner of great events, I came round to my own again.
Sally was not forgotten; she had just become a sorrow. So perhaps my downfall as a lover was a precursor of better results as an officer.
I held in abeyance my last conclusion regarding Sampson and Wright, and only awaited Steele's return to have fixed in mind what these men were.
Wright's remark about Steele not returning did not worry me. I had heard many such dark sayings in reference to Rangers.
Rangers had a trick of coming back. I did not see any man or men on the present horizon of Linrock equal to the killing of Steele.
As Miss Sampson and Sally had no inclination to ride, I had even more freedom. I went down to the town and burst, cheerily whistling, into Jim Hoden's place.
Jim always made me welcome there, as much for my society as for the money I spent, and I never neglected being free with both. I bought a handful of cigars and shoved some of them in his pocket.
"How's tricks, Jim?" I asked cheerily.
"Reckon I'm feelin' as well as could be expected," replied Jim. His head was circled by a bandage that did not conceal the lump where he had been struck. Jim looked a little pale, but he was bright enough.
"That was a hell of a biff Snell gave you, the skunk," I remarked with the same cheery assurance.
"Russ, I ain't accusin' Snell," remonstrated Jim with eyes that made me thoughtful.
"Sure, I know you're too good a sport to send a fellow up. But Snell deserved what he got. I saw his face when he made his talk to Sampson's court. Snell lied. And I'll tell you what, Jim, if it'd been me instead of that Ranger, Bud Snell would have got settled."
Jim appeared to be agitated by my forcible intimation of friendship.
"Jim, that's between ourselves," I went on. "I'm no fool. And much as I blab when I'm hunky, it's all air. Maybe you've noticed that about me. In some parts of Texas it's policy to be close-mouthed. Policy and healthy. Between ourselves, as friends, I want you to know I lean some on Steele's side of the fence."
As I lighted a cigar I saw, out of the corner of my eye, how Hoden gave a quick start. I expected some kind of a startling idea to flash into his mind.
Presently I turned and frankly met his gaze. I had startled him out of his habitual set taciturnity, but even as I looked the light that might have been amaze and joy faded out of his face, leaving it the same old mask.
Still I had seen enough. Like a bloodhound, I had a scent. "Thet's funny, Russ, seein' as you drift with the gang Steele's bound to fight," remarked Hoden.
"Sure. I'm a sport. If I can't gamble with gentlemen I'll gamble with rustlers."
Again he gave a slight start, and this time he hid his eyes.
"Wal, Russ, I've heard you was slick," he said.
"You tumble, Jim. I'm a little better on the draw."
"On the draw? With cards, an' gun, too, eh?"
"Now, Jim, that last follows natural. I haven't had much chance to show how good I am on the draw with a gun. But that'll come soon."
"Reckon thet talk's a little air," said Hoden with his dry laugh. "Same as you leanin' a little on the Ranger's side of the fence."
"But, Jim, wasn't he game? What'd you think of that stand? Bluffed the whole gang! The way he called Sampson--why, it was great! The justice of that call doesn't bother me. It was Steele's nerve that got me. That'd warm any man's blood."
There was a little red in Hoden's pale cheeks and I saw him swallow hard. I had struck deep again.
"Say, don't you work for Sampson?" he queried.
"Me? I guess not. I'm Miss Sampson's man. He and Wright have tried to fire me many a time."
"Thet so?" he said curiously. "What for?"
"Too many silver trimmings on me, Jim. And I pack my gun low down."
"Wal, them two don't go much together out here," replied Hoden. "But I ain't seen thet anyone has shot off the trimmin's."
"Maybe it'll commence, Jim, as soon as I stop buying drinks. Talking about work--who'd you say Snell worked for?"
"I didn't say."
"Well, say so now, can't you? Jim, you're powerful peevish to-day. It's the bump on your head. Who does Snell work for?"
"When he works at all, which sure ain't often, he rides for Sampson."
"Humph! Seems to me, Jim, that Sampson's the whole circus round Linrock. I was some sore the other day to find I was losing good money at Sampson's faro game. Sure if I'd won I wouldn't have been sorry, eh? But I was surprised to hear some scully say Sampson owned the Hope So dive."
"I've heard he owned considerable property hereabouts," replied Jim constrainedly.
"Humph again! Why, Jim, you know it, only like every other scully you meet in this town, you're afraid to open your mug about Sampson. Get me straight, Jim Hoden. I don't care a damn for Colonel Mayor Sampson. And for cause I'd throw a gun on him just as quick as on any rustler in Pecos."
"Talk's cheap, my boy," replied Hoden, making light of my bluster, but the red was deep in his face.
"Sure, I know that," I said, calming down. "My temper gets up, Jim. Then it's not well known that Sampson owns the Hope So?"
"Reckon it's known in Pecos, all right. But Sampson's name isn't connected with the Hope So. Blandy runs the place."
"That Blandy--I've got no use for him. His faro game's crooked, or I'm locoed bronc. Not that we don't have lots of crooked faro dealers. A fellow can stand for them. But Blandy's mean, back handed, never looks you in the eyes. That Hope So place ought to be run by a good fellow like you, Hoden."
"Thanks, Russ," replied he, and I imagined his voice a little husky. "Didn't you ever hear I used to run it?"
"No. Did you?" I said quickly.
"I reckon. I built the place, made additions twice, owned it for eleven years."
"Well, I'll be doggoned!"
It was indeed my turn to be surprised, and with the surprise came glimmering.
"I'm sorry you're not there now, Jim. Did you sell out?"
"No. Just lost the place."
Hoden was bursting for relief now--to talk--to tell. Sympathy had made him soft. I did not need to ask another question.
"It was two years ago--two years last March," he went on. "I was in a big cattle deal with Sampson. We got the stock, an' my share, eighteen hundred head, was rustled off. I owed Sampson. He pressed me. It come to a lawsuit, an' I--was ruined."
It hurt me to look at Hoden. He was white, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
I saw the bitterness, the defeat, the agony of the man. He had failed to meet his obligation; nevertheless he had been swindled.
All that he suppressed, all that would have been passion had the man's spirit not been broken, lay bare for me to see. I had now the secret of his bitterness.
But the reason he did not openly accuse Sampson, the secret of his reticence and fear--these I thought best to try to learn at some later time, after I had consulted with Steele.
"Hard luck! Jim, it certainly was tough," I said. "But you're a good loser. And the wheel turns!
"Now, Jim, here's what I come particular to see you for. I need your advice. I've got a little money. Between you and me, as friends, I've been adding some to that roll all the time. But before I lose it I want to invest some. Buy some stock or buy an interest in some rancher's herd.
"What I want you to steer me on is a good, square rancher. Or maybe a couple of ranchers if there happen to be two honest ones in Pecos. Eh? No deals with ranchers who ride in the dark with rustlers! I've a hunch Linrock's full of them.
"Now, Jim, you've been here for years. So you must know a couple of men above suspicion."
"Thank God I do, Russ," he replied feelingly. "Frank Morton an' Si Zimmer, my friends an' neighbors all my prosperous days. An' friends still. You can gamble on Frank and Si. But Russ, if you want advice from me, don't invest money in stock now."
"Because any new feller buyin' stock in Pecos these days will be rustled quicker'n he can say Jack Robinson. The pioneers, the new cattlemen--these are easy pickin'. But the new fellers have to learn the ropes. They don't know anythin' or anybody. An' the old ranchers are wise an' sore. They'd fight if they...."
"What?" I put in as he paused. "If they knew who was rustling the stock?"
"If they had the nerve?"
"Not thet so much."
"What then? What'd make them fight?"
I went out of Hoden's with that word ringing in my ears. A leader! In my mind's eye I saw a horde of dark faced, dusty-booted cattlemen riding grim and armed behind Vaughn Steele.
More thoughtful than usual, I walked on, passing some of my old haunts, and was about to turn in front of a feed and grain store when a hearty slap on my back disturbed my reflection.
"Howdy thar, cowboy," boomed a big voice.
It was Morton, the rancher whom Jim had mentioned, and whose acquaintance I had made. He was a man of great bulk, with a ruddy, merry face.
"Hello, Morton. Let's have a drink," I replied.
"Gotta rustle home," he said. "Young feller, I've a ranch to work."
"Sell it to me, Morton."
He laughed and said he wished he could. His buckboard stood at the rail, the horses stamping impatiently.
"Cards must be runnin' lucky," he went on, with another hearty laugh.
"Can't kick on the luck. But I'm afraid it will change. Morton, my friend Hoden gave me a hunch you'd be a good man to tie to. Now, I've a little money, and before I lose it I'd like to invest it in stock."
He smiled broadly, but for all his doubt of me he took definite interest.
"I'm not drunk, and I'm on the square," I said bluntly. "You've taken me for a no-good cow puncher without any brains. Wake up, Morton. If you never size up your neighbors any better than you have me--well, you won't get any richer."
It was sheer enjoyment for me to make my remarks to these men, pregnant with meaning. Morton showed his pleasure, his interest, but his faith held aloof.
"I've got some money. I had some. Then the cards have run lucky. Will you let me in on some kind of deal? Will you start me up as a stockman, with a little herd all my own?"
"Russ, this's durn strange, comin' from Sampson's cowboy," he said.
"I'm not in his outfit. My job's with Miss Sampson. She's fine, but the old man? Nit! He's been after me for weeks. I won't last long. That's one reason why I want to start up for myself."
"Hoden sent you to me, did he? Poor ol' Jim. Wal, Russ, to come out flat-footed, you'd be foolish to buy cattle now. I don't want to take your money an' see you lose out. Better go back across the Pecos where the rustlers ain't so strong. I haven't had more'n twenty-five-hundred head of stock for ten years. The rustlers let me hang on to a breedin' herd. Kind of them, ain't it?"
"Sort of kind. All I hear is rustlers." I replied with impatience. "You see, I haven't ever lived long in a rustler-run county. Who heads the gang anyway?"
Frank Morton looked at me with a curiously-amused smile.
"I hear lots about Jack Blome and Snecker. Everybody calls them out and out bad. Do they head this mysterious gang?"
"Russ, I opine Blome an' Snecker parade themselves off boss rustlers same as gun throwers. But thet's the love such men have for bein' thought hell. That's brains headin' the rustler gang hereabouts."
"Maybe Blome and Snecker are blinds. Savvy what I mean, Morton? Maybe there's more in the parade than just the fame of it."
Morton snapped his big jaw as if to shut in impulsive words.
"Look here, Morton. I'm not so young in years even if I am young west of the Pecos. I can figure ahead. It stands to reason, no matter how damn strong these rustlers are, how hidden their work, however involved with supposedly honest men--they can't last."
"They come with the pioneers an' they'll last as long as thar's a single steer left," he declared.
"Well, if you take that view of circumstances I just figure you as one of the rustlers!"
Morton looked as if he were about to brain me with the butt of his whip. His anger flashed by then as unworthy of him, and, something striking him as funny, he boomed out a laugh.
"It's not so funny," I went on. "If you're going to pretend a yellow streak, what else will I think?"
"Pretend?" he repeated.
"Sure. You can't fool me, Morton. I know men of nerve. And here in Pecos they're not any different from those in other places. I say if you show anything like a lack of sand it's all bluff.
"By nature you've got nerve. There are a lot of men round Linrock who're afraid of their shadows, afraid to be out after dark, afraid to open their mouths. But you're not one.
"So, I say, if you claim these rustlers will last, you're pretending lack of nerve just to help the popular idea along. For they can't last.
"Morton, I don't want to be a hard-riding cowboy all my days. Do you think I'd let fear of a gang of rustlers stop me from going in business with a rancher? Nit! What you need out here in Pecos is some new blood--a few youngsters like me to get you old guys started. Savvy what I mean?"
"Wal, I reckon I do," he replied, looking as if a storm had blown over him.
I gauged the hold the rustler gang had on Linrock by the difficult job it was to stir this really courageous old cattleman. He had grown up with the evil. To him it must have been a necessary one, the same as dry seasons and cyclones.
"Russ, I'll look you up the next time I come to town," he said soberly.
We parted, and I, more than content with the meeting, retraced my steps down street to the Hope So saloon.
Here I entered, bent on tasks as sincere as the ones just finished, but displeasing, because I had to mix with a low, profane set, to cultivate them, to drink occasionally despite my deftness at emptying glasses on the floor, to gamble with them and strangers, always playing the part of a flush and flashy cowboy, half drunk, ready to laugh or fight.
On the night of the fifth day after Steele's departure, I went, as was my habit, to the rendezvous we maintained at the pile of rocks out in the open.
The night was clear, bright starlight, without any moon, and for this latter fact safer to be abroad. Often from my covert I had seen dark figures skulking in and out of Linrock.
It would have been interesting to hold up these mysterious travelers; so far, however, this had not been our game. I had enough to keep my own tracks hidden, and my own comings and goings.
I liked to be out in the night, with the darkness close down to the earth, and the feeling of a limitless open all around. Not only did I listen for Steele's soft step, but for any sound--the yelp of coyote or mourn of wolf, the creak of wind in the dead brush, the distant clatter of hoofs, a woman's singing voice faint from the town.
This time, just when I was about to give up for that evening, Steele came looming like a black giant long before I heard his soft step. It was good to feel his grip, even if it hurt, because after five days I had begun to worry.
"Well, old boy, how's tricks?" he asked easily.
"Well, old man, did you land that son of a gun in jail?"
"You bet I did. And he'll stay there for a while. Del Rio rather liked the idea, Russ. All right there. I side-stepped Sanderson on the way back. But over here at the little village--Sampson they call it--I was held up. Couldn't help it, because there wasn't any road around."
"Held up?" I queried.
"That's it, the buckboard was held up. I got into the brush in time to save my bacon. They began to shoot too soon."
"Did you get any of them?"
"Didn't stay to see," he chuckled. "Had to hoof it to Linrock, and it's a good long walk."
"Been to your 'dobe yet to-night?"
"I slipped in at the back. Russ, it bothered me some to make sure no one was laying for me in the dark."
"You'll have to get a safer place. Why not take to the open every night?"
"Russ, that's well enough on a trail. But I need grub, and I've got to have a few comforts. I'll risk the 'dobe yet a little."
Then I narrated all that I had seen and done and heard during his absence, holding back one thing. What I did tell him sobered him at once, brought the quiet, somber mood, the thoughtful air.
"So that's all. Well, it's enough."
"All pertaining to our job, Vaughn," I replied. "The rest is sentiment, perhaps. I had a pretty bad case of moons over the little Langdon girl. But we quarreled. And it's ended now. Just as well, too, because if she'd...."
"Russ, did you honestly care for her? The real thing, I mean?"
"I--I'm afraid so. I'm sort of hurt inside. But, hell! There's one thing sure, a love affair might have hindered me, made me soft. I'm glad it's over."
He said no more, but his big hand pressing on my knee told me of his sympathy, another indication that there was nothing wanting in this Ranger.
"The other thing concerns you," I went on, somehow reluctant now to tell this. "You remember how I heard Wright making you out vile to Miss Sampson? Swore you'd never come back? Well, after he had gone, when Sally said he'd meant you'd be killed, Miss Sampson felt bad about it. She said she ought to be glad if someone killed you, but she couldn't be. She called you a bloody ruffian, yet she didn't want you shot.
"She said some things about the difference between your hideous character and your splendid stature. Called you a magnificent fellow--that was it. Well, then she choked up and confessed something to Sally in shame and disgrace."
"Shame--disgrace?" echoed Steele, greatly interested. "What?"
"She confessed she had been taken with you--had her little dream about you. And she hated herself for it."
Never, I thought, would I forget Vaughn Steele's eyes. It did not matter that it was dark; I saw the fixed gleam, then the leaping, shadowy light.
"Did she say that?" His voice was not quite steady. "Wonderful! Even if it only lasted a minute! She might--we might--If it wasn't for this hellish job! Russ, has it dawned on you yet, what I've got to do to Diane Sampson?"
"Yes," I replied. "Vaughn, you haven't gone sweet on her?"
What else could I make of that terrible thing in his eyes? He did not reply to that at all. I thought my arm would break in his clutch.
"You said you knew what I've got to do to Diane Sampson," he repeated hoarsely.
"Yes, you've got to ruin her happiness, if not her life."
"Why? Speak out, Russ. All this comes like a blow. There for a little I hoped you had worked out things differently from me. No hope. Ruin her life! Why?"
I could explain this strange agitation in Steele in no other way except that realization had brought keen suffering as incomprehensible as it was painful. I could not tell if it came from suddenly divined love for Diane Sampson equally with a poignant conviction that his fate was to wreck her. But I did see that he needed to speak out the brutal truth.
"Steele, old man, you'll ruin Diane Sampson, because, as arrest looks improbable to me, you'll have to kill her father."
"My God! Why, why? Say it!"
"Because Sampson is the leader of the Linrock gang of rustlers."
That night before we parted we had gone rather deeply into the plan of action for the immediate future.
First I gave Steele my earnest counsel and then as stiff an argument as I knew how to put up, all anent the absolute necessity of his eternal vigilance. If he got shot in a fair encounter with his enemies--well, that was a Ranger's risk and no disgrace. But to be massacred in bed, knifed, in the dark, shot in the back, ambushed in any manner--not one of these miserable ends must be the last record of Vaughn Steele.
He promised me in a way that made me wonder if he would ever sleep again or turn his back on anyone--made me wonder too, at the menace in his voice. Steele seemed likely to be torn two ways, and already there was a hint of future desperation.
It was agreed that I make cautious advances to Hoden and Morton, and when I could satisfy myself of their trustworthiness reveal my identity to them. Through this I was to cultivate Zimmer, and then other ranchers whom we should decide could be let into the secret.
It was not only imperative that we learn through them clues by which we might eventually fix guilt on the rustler gang, but also just as imperative that we develop a band of deputies to help us when the fight began.
Steele, now that he was back in Linrock, would have the center of the stage, with all eyes upon him. We agreed, moreover, that the bolder the front now the better the chance of ultimate success. The more nerve he showed the less danger of being ambushed, the less peril in facing vicious men.
But we needed a jail. Prisoners had to be corraled after arrest, or the work would be useless, almost a farce, and there was no possibility of repeating trips to Del Rio.
We could not use an adobe house for a jail, because that could be easily cut out of or torn down.
Finally I remembered an old stone house near the end of the main street; it had one window and one door, and had been long in disuse. Steele would rent it, hire men to guard and feed his prisoners; and if these prisoners bribed or fought their way to freedom, that would not injure the great principle for which he stood.
Both Steele and I simultaneously, from different angles of reasoning, had arrived at a conviction of Sampson's guilt. It was not so strong as realization; rather a divination.
Long experience in detecting, in feeling the hidden guilt of men, had sharpened our senses for that particular thing. Steele acknowledged a few mistakes in his day; but I, allowing for the same strength of conviction, had never made a single mistake.
But conviction was one thing and proof vastly another. Furthermore, when proof was secured, then came the crowning task--that of taking desperate men in a wild country they dominated.
Verily, Steele and I had our work cut out for us. However, we were prepared to go at it with infinite patience and implacable resolve. Steele and I differed only in the driving incentive; of course, outside of that one binding vow to save the Ranger Service.
He had a strange passion, almost an obsession, to represent the law of Texas, and by so doing render something of safety and happiness to the honest pioneers.
Beside Steele I knew I shrunk to a shadow. I was not exactly a heathen, and certainly I wanted to help harassed people, especially women and children; but mainly with me it was the zest, the thrill, the hazard, the matching of wits--in a word, the adventure of the game.
Next morning I rode with the young ladies. In the light of Sally's persistently flagrant advances, to which I was apparently blind, I saw that my hard-won victory over self was likely to be short-lived.
That possibility made me outwardly like ice. I was an attentive, careful, reliable, and respectful attendant, seeing to the safety of my charges; but the one-time gay and debonair cowboy was a thing of the past.
Sally, womanlike, had been a little--a very little--repentant; she had showed it, my indifference had piqued her; she had made advances and then my coldness had roused her spirit. She was the kind of girl to value most what she had lost, and to throw consequences to the winds in winning it back.
When I divined this I saw my revenge. To be sure, when I thought of it I had no reason to want revenge. She had been most gracious to me.
But there was the catty thing she had said about being kissed again by her admirers. Then, in all seriousness, sentiment aside, I dared not make up with her.
So the cold and indifferent part I played was imperative.
We halted out on the ridge and dismounted for the usual little rest. Mine I took in the shade of a scrubby mesquite. The girls strolled away out of sight. It was a drowsy day, and I nearly fell asleep.
Something aroused me--a patter of footsteps or a rustle of skirts. Then a soft thud behind me gave me at once a start and a thrill. First I saw Sally's little brown hands on my shoulders. Then her head, with hair all shiny and flying and fragrant, came round over my shoulder, softly smoothing my cheek, until her sweet, saucy, heated face was right under my eyes.
"Russ, don't you love me any more?" she whispered.
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